We weren’t nice boys — we were fucking nasty little bastards.” — Sid Vicious
by john richen
If rock music’s legacy truly has anything to do with rebellion and revolution it is hard to think of a band who proclaimed this more loudly than the Sex Pistols. Emerging from the detritus of a bloated, self-indulgent music culture and a society that had its disenfranchised underclass hopeless, powerless and rioting, the Pistols became a magnet for a disaffected British youth whose innocence could not be lost as they never had it in the first place. By the time they reached their pinnacle and self-immolated under the bright glare of the media’s omnipresent camera, the Sex Pistols had in fact changed the landscape of rock music forever. It is hard to pinpoint a singular band that did more to turn the entire world upside down in such a short time, but the Pistols did it with a snarling, spitting bravado unparalleled in the modern age.
Julien Temple, a British filmmaker was the band’s unofficial scribe, shooting hundreds of hours of film ranging from the earliest rehearsals to the the final empty moments at the Winterland in San Francisco. Unfortunately until 1999, the small amount of footage that had been used was limited to Temple’s The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, a 1980 propaganda piece completely orchestrated by the bands huckster “manager” Malcolm McClaren. Swindle met with neither the approval of the band, nor the filmmaker. Even worse, the opportunity for an accurate picture of the band’s incendiary story was squandered.
When The Filth & The Fury was released in March 2000, Temple’s opportunity to tell the real story of the Sex Pistols came to fruition — with full cooperation and approval from the remaining Pistols. Each of the band members was interviewed extensively (frontman Johnny Rotten reportedly filmed over nine hours of interviews for the picture) and each was questioned independently of the others. The results are jarring as the rifts between band members, especially Rotten and guitarist Steve Jones become immediately apparent. The interview Temple filmed with a scratching but coherent Sid Vicious in Hyde Park is simultaneously riveting and tragic.
The film’s examination of the relationships in the band are pasted over a collage of video snippets setting the cultural and historic backdrop. They provide the glimpse you were never given while McLaren was jerry-rigging the Pistol’s public personae. The fact that McLaren was somehow able to pollute and ruin two of the most influential bands of the ’70’s in the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols is reason enough for anyone who truly cares about rock and roll’s lineage to dismiss him. The fact that Temple catches him gloating about it while referring to the Pistols as his “puppets” and “sculptures” is the proof needed to discredit him. Jones, not one to waste words put it best, “Everyone knows Malcolm’s full of shit.”
A big part of what makes the Filth & The Fury so compelling is its historical relevance as the only film document of record that illuminates the resiliency of the young Pistols in the face of staggering odds. As the full force of the British media locks on to the band and exploits their every antic, the Pistols turn on them with a reckless disregard to their own well being. In a cabalistic embrace with a nation’s gaze, the band destroys itself before your very eyes. They unleash a load of obscenities on national television, get tanked and blow record contracts, and find themselves labeled “the antithesis of human kind” by local politicos. In the midst of this mayhem, it is amusing to watch provincial leaders and concerned citizens speak out against the band, looking to gain notoriety by taking a stance against the youthful malice that the Pistols have come to champion.
Even more fascinating is that the action unfolds in the midst of a media firestorm and front-page headlines. With manipulation and posturing occurring on all fronts, the music itself becomes the Pistol’s only authentic mode of communicating their message. While McLaren and the media focus relentlessly on the circus-like spectacle around the band, the Pistols themselves appear to gel, and some of their most vital music is recorded. For a brief moment no band is more important, no songs are bigger than theirs.
The film captures the drama of this apex, and then wistfully watches as it passes by. The Pistols, engaged in an unholy dance with their own commercial potential, transcend the angst and spirit of their original trajectory. Rotten and his comrades stand helpless as a movement based on individuality turns towards solidarity in fashion and mindset. By the time they set off to tour the states their artistic posture has changed into something much more calculating and antagonistic.
Much of the Filth & The Fury’s real power flows from the on film examination of Sid’s impact on the band both as an talent-less musician joining the biggest rock and roll circus of all time; and as a caricature that was to become one of punk’s most pitiful images. On Sid, Rotten seems to harbor both a deep resentment and an even deeper sense of loss. “Sid went into the worst kind of rock and roll idiot you could ever hope to have a nightmare about.”
His words on heroin addiction are even more carefully aimed. “I could take on England, but I couldn’t take on one heroin addict.” Later, when interviewed about the apparent anti-drug message of the film he elaborated, “It’s a shame that the Pistols became associated with drugs because of Sid’s indulgence. Sid got it wrong and he got it wrong big time…The Pistols wasn’t about destroying ourselves, it was about destroying a situation that was destroying us.”
Rotten’s anger turns to compassion, then despair as he remembers his friend. In the film’s most wrenching moment he addresses Temple behind the camera tearfully (“…how could they, Julien?”) while wondering aloud how the media and music industry could be so perverse as to cultivate and then cash in on Sid’s pathetic self-destruction, selling some wasted and worthless “punk rock” buffoon. It is then that the substance of his ongoing dialogue is absorbed — the monsters addiction creates are sometimes after all the very humans we care the most about. And the monstrosity that is the corporate music machine couldn’t care less.
If you come away from The Filth & The Fury with nothing more than that, it is enough.